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October 05, 2017

A lot of the internet’s anti-vaxxers are coming from Pennsylvania's affluent communities, study shows

Among new parents, the anti-vaccination movement has lured more and more followers, and like many prominent followers of the modern age, they can be found on Twitter.

Twitter users from Pennsylvania, particularly, are among the biggest contributors to online sentiments against vaccinations. In a five-year study conducted out of the University of Colorado Boulder, Pennsylvania was named one of five states – ranked after other top-tweeting states California, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York – that generated the most anti-vaxx content on the social network.

“The debate is far from over. There is still a very vocal group of people out there who are opposed to vaccines,” study co-author Chris Vargo said in a statement. “Half of the talk online that we observed about vaccines was negative.”

Researchers used a machine-learning algorithm to examine more than half a million tweets from around the country written between 2009 and 2015. Vargo and his co-author Theodore Tomeny, an autism researcher at the University of Alabama, assessed only tweets that referred both to autism and to vaccines.

The findings suggest that a great number of anti-vaccination tweets are generated from affluent communities with a high population of new parents. Those five states, Pennsylvania included, had anti-vaccine tweets higher than the national average.

The study also found that the volume of anti-vaccine tweets went up as news covered vaccine-related events. President Donald Trump started tweeting his sentiments on the anti-vaxx movement as early as 2012 when he asked the question “What do we have to lose?” in relation to cutting down on vaccines.

The battle has not backed down since then, despite a 2015 statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics that restated the importance of vaccines. The statement was issued the day after a Republican presidential debate.

“[We] would like to correct false statements made during the Republican presidential debate last night regarding vaccines,” the academy said.

“Claims that vaccines are linked to autism, or are unsafe when administered according to the recommended schedule, have been disproven by a robust body of medical literature. It is dangerous to public health to suggest otherwise.”

Though the study shows that anti-vaxx tweets clustered geographically based on census demographics, there was a correlation during the time period studied that showed an increase of anti-vaccine tweets as households making more than $200,000 annually likewise increased.

The claims remain unfounded as anti-vaxxers continue to point toward a 1998 study of 12 children that suggested the MMR vaccine led to developmental disorders. The study has since been retracted, and similar studies have either used similarly small and inconclusive sample sizes or have failed to find a link between vaccines and autism altogether.

“Time and time again researchers have tried to substantiate this idea that there is a link between autism and vaccines but they have not been able to,” Tomeny said. 

“Unfortunately, the idea is still very much out there, being promoted by a vocal minority online. That’s problematic because often only one side of the story is being told.”

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